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A Little Big Star: Alex Chilton and the Movies

The death of musician Alex Chilton in the middle of last March brought an untimely end to a very unusual career. Only 59 at the time of his death, his years as a professional musician began all the way back in 1966; he was only 16 when, as the lead singer of The Box Tops, he made it to the top of the charts with "The Letter." After the dissolution of that band, whose music was largely dictated by outside writers and producers, the Memphis-born Chilton attempted a solo career before hooking up with young Memphis musicians Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens to form Big Star. To say that this band created what came to be known as "power pop" is, in this former music writer's opinion, rather too kind to most of the groups put under the "power pop" rubric. And since this is a film website and not a music website, I'll just cut to the chase and say Big Star was pretty much the shit. And that the band's utter lack of commercial success meant that Chilton's career trajectory was from pop star to cult figure, whereas it's usually the other way around.

Because creative types gravitate to, well, creative work, a good deal of what's initially cult music gets assimilated into the mainstream via different mediums. Smart, unusual filmmakers often like smart, unusual music, and sometimes they put that music into their films. This can sometimes make a band's career: The Psychedelic Furs got a huge boost when John Hughes not only included their song "Pretty in Pink" in one of his film projects but went so far as to give said film that very title, although the song and the motion picture have little to do with each other. Hughes did a similar favor for Simple Minds, a dreadful band that became more dreadful when they, urm, sold out by covering the dreadful "Don't You Forget About Me," written by producer Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff for The Breakfast Club. For the artists it doesn't break out of cultdom, soundtrack exposure can mean some kind of career rejuvenation and/or a nice income stream; check out Lou Reed's IMDB page some time.

Chilton's IMDB info isn't as impressive, volume-wise, but has some high-profile points. The creators of the long-time hit comedy series That '70s Show chose "On The Street," the Chilton-co-written/Bell-sung Big Star paean to hanging out, as the show's theme, with the cast members lip-synching it at every opening. I only saw my first episode of the show well into its run, and I can't tell you how much it flummoxed me to see the still much-loathed tool Ashton Kutcher* mouthing a song by one of my favorite bands.

For his terrific 2009 film Adventureland, writer/director Greg Mottola gives the viewer a presentiment of his lead character James' upcoming emotional state via the Big Star song "I'm In Love With A Girl," from the group's second album Radio City (made by the trio version of the group, Bell having departed after the commercial failure of the group's hopefully-titled debut #1 Record). I asked Mottola, with whom I've maintained a cordial acquaintance since I interviewed him for the DGA Quarterly last year, to talk a little about the formation of his musical taste, and how he came to use the Big Star song in his film. I thank him for taking the time, during the very busy post-production of his upcoming film Paul, to e-mail me some thoughts.

Discovering Big Star: "Alas, my musical taste was limited by my provincial upbringing on Long Island.  If it was the middle of the night and I twisted the antenna the right way, my radio could pick up WFUV, Fordham's alternative radio station.  It's likely I heard Big Star there—but like many other young people in the 80s, I didn't become cognizant of them until I was reading about them in interviews with people like Michael Stipe and, of course, Paul Westerberg.  In 1988, as a Columbia U film student, I went to see Alex Chilton at the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street.  It was what I assume to be a typical Chilton show—sincere and irreverent, ramshackle and precise, eclectic songs mixed with pop gems.  That's something that many of us have loved about Alex Chilton —he always went his own way.  Years later ('96, I think) I saw Big Star with Yo La Tengo at Tramps.  (Incidentally, I met Yo La Tengo that night and began a friendship with them.)  The show was simply a great night of music; I also remember laughing a lot.  Chilton was always a funny guy.  Who else would name one of pop music's most gorgeous & heartbreaking songs 'The Ballad of El Goodo?'"

Big Star and Adventureland: "During our very limited and hasty pre-production (the movie didn't get approved until the last minute—we had a couple of weeks to prep), I decided that I wanted to see the actual record sleeve of the song playing in that particular scene.  I was brainstorming with my wife and she brought up my love of Big Star, which she shares.  My first thought was "well, should it be an 80s band?"—but, as I stated above, that's exactly when I discovered them and I knew many others did, too.  Plus, I'd made a decision that I didn't want to make a slavishly eighties movie, that there'd be lots of evidence of cars and set dressing from the decades before (I grew up in modest neighborhood—people didn't throw things away).  So we scrambled to see if we could clear 'I'm In Love With A Girl.'  The sad truth is that it was very easy and quick to clear.  All the Big Star songs are owned by a large music library and I believe they have complete control of them.  Unlike clearing Lou Reed songs, I doubt that Alex Chilton needed to give his approval. We also had to clear the artwork for Radio City, which features that great William Eggleston photograph of a bare lightbulb on the ceiling of a red room.

"As for the actual song I chose—it's a deceptively simple love song.  The entire verse is a mere nine lines describing a feeling of love for a young woman —yet Chilton tells us three times that he didn't know that this feeling was actually possible.  It makes me think of a cynic who has been reawakened to life.  Or at least that's what Alex Chilton's music has time and time again done for me."

* The opinions expressed concerning Ashton Kutcher herein are those of the article's author, and the article's author only.

Dodgy memory alert! Have you seen Refn’s “The Pusher” trilogy? I forget which film, but there is a shot that is essentialy Egglestones photo from “Radio City”. I always saw it as a Big Star reference.

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